During his first term in office, President Obama sought to “reset” the relationship between the United States and Russia to facilitate cooperation and reduce tensions between the former Cold War rivals. At the start of his second term, he has little to show for these efforts. Russia’s behavior in international affairs has not improved, exemplified by its continuing diplomatic and military support for a brutal regime in Syria that systematically tortures and murders its own people. Compared to its already low standards of conduct, the Russian government’s behavior on the domestic front has grown even worse since Vladimir Putin regained the presidency last May. It has pursued a vicious campaign aimed at eliminating dissent and denying basic rights of expression, assembly, and due process of law to those within Russia who challenge the privileged position of government officials and their business allies. Under communism, there was at least the pretext that the suppression of basic civil and political rights was done to achieve some larger ideological purpose; under Putinism, the sole purpose of this suppression of rights is merely to keep corrupt officials in power.



A bright spot on the American side of this otherwise dismal picture was the enactment this past December of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, named after the Russian lawyer and auditor who died in prison after exposing the widespread financial fraud and corruption of Russian officials. Leading up to his death in 2009, Magnitsky had been jailed for almost a year without trial, during which time he was tortured and denied treatment for serious medical conditions. The act bans Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment or otherwise involved in “gross violations of human rights” from entering the United States or doing business here. The hope is that similar legislation will be adopted in the European Union and elsewhere.

Russia’s initial response to enactment of the Magnitsky Act was sad but not unexpected: it banned American families from adopting Russian children. After the United States published a list of eighteen Russian officials to whom the act applies, Russia further responded by publishing a list of eighteen American officials who, because of their own supposed role in human rights violations, are now banned from entering Russia. The Russian responses only serve to reinforce the morality behind the American position and the cynical calculation behind the Russian one: the Magnitsky Act is specifically directed at persons who are verifiably guilty of committing gross human rights violations, while the Russian ban on adoptions targets innocent families in addition to young children. Similarly, of the eighteen Americans on the Russian no-travel list, fourteen were involved in the criminal prosecution of a Russian arms smuggler and a Russian drug dealer, who, unlike Sergei Magnitsky, were given due process of law. The remaining four American officials on the Russian list were involved in some way with the operations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba following 9/11. Since Russia did not actively pursue this issue in the more than ten years since the supposed violations began, however, a legitimate concern with addressing human right violations is obviously not what is motivating the Russian government.

The United States has a genuine interest in improving its relations with Russia and gaining Russia’s cooperation in dealing with critical issues around the world. But ignoring flagrant human rights violations should not be the price the US pays for such improved relations and cooperation. We did not accept that option during the Cold War; we should not accept it now.

Anyone interested in understanding in more detail the recent serious decline in human rights in Russia and the alternatives available to the United States in responding to it should see the essay by David J. Kramer and Susan Corke in the Freedom House report Contending with Putin’s Russia: A Call for American Leadership, available at

http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/special-reports/contending-putins-russia.